Obama-Netanyahu mistrust is the ticking time bomb of Iran nuclear talks

It took only one round of preliminary nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries for a trans-Atlantic ruckus to break out between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Obama over whether Tehran had or hadn’t been given a “freebie." One can only imagine the open hostilities that might break out between the two leaders if, contrary to expectations, the talks begin to yield real results.

“My initial impression is that Iran has been given a ‘freebie,’” Netanyahu said on Sunday in regard to the five-week hiatus before the next round of talks with Tehran, scheduled to be held on May 23 in Baghdad. With U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman as a character witness by his side, Netanyahu was pointedly showing off his ease and familiarity not only with American vernacular but with American politics as well, and the point was not lost on Obama’s White House advisers. The Israeli shot across the bow travelled all the way to Cartagena, Colombia, where the visiting Obama took the trouble to reject Netanyahu’s charge verbatim, saying that Iran had gained nothing from the first round of talks, certainly not a “freebie."

The early timing of this undiplomatic exchange surprised even some seasoned observers of the troublesome relationship between the two leaders. During his relatively amicable visit to Washington last month, Netanyahu and Obama had reached broad understandings, if not total agreement, on the ways to move forward over the coming weeks. And the dynamics of the negotiating process are such that the decision to convene a second round of talks is insignificant in and of itself, Netanyahu knows full well, and the crunch time will come, if at all, only if a third and decisive round of talks is convened. Thus, the logic behind Netanyahu’s early broadside against the talks remains unclear, though it clearly angered Obama.

Israelis, of course, are axiomatically skeptical of the talks with Tehran and view them as an Iranian diversionary tactic aimed at gaining time, weakening international sanctions and enhancing Iran’s legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim world. Israeli officials are under no illusions that Tehran would ever accept Jerusalem’s two main demands of a total ban on uranium enrichment or the dismantling of the Fordow underground facility near Qom. Under normal circumstances, however, Israel would be expected to understand the need to go through the motions of exhausting the diplomatic options and to trust the U.S. to call the Iranian bluff in order to show the world that Tehran’s intentions are far from benign.

The above article was published in haaretz.com on April 16th, 2012 (14:32).

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